Rescue under pressure: criminalisation and the shifting meanings of humanitarianism in the Central Mediterranea

Santer, Kiri Olivia (8 November 2019). Rescue under pressure: criminalisation and the shifting meanings of humanitarianism in the Central Mediterranea (Unpublished). In: The Global as Method: Ethnographic Scales in the 21st century. Geneva. 08. - 09.11.2019.

This paper portrays the Central Mediterranean Sea as a frontier, in the sense of a space where ongoing power struggles between migrants, NGO vessels, states and the European Union take place to secure the right to be present, intervene and transit. The concept of the
“humanitarian border” has been applied to that maritime zone to describe the interlinked practices of care and control of Search and Rescue activities of boats in distress. These contain, for the most part, people attempting to flee from Libya and reach European shores. However, with the declaration of a new Libyan Search and Rescue Region, which gives the Libyan Coast Guard the upper hand in coordinating rescues and interventions, civil NGO fleets active north of the coast of Libya are facing new dilemmas. Whilst previously, NGO rescue boats would interact and collaborate with maritime authorities, receiving coordinates for distress cases and coordinating disembarkations, their relation with national officials has now deteriorated. In parallel, the EU and member states have reverted to legal and pre-emptive tactics to reduce the possibilities for NGO boats to intervene whilst justifying their support of the Libyan Coast Guard by using the same rhetoric of reducing deaths at sea. These new developments call for a rethinking of ‘the humanitarian border’. After showing how the shrinkage of ‘humanitarian space’ takes place, this paper argues that the criminalisation of NGOs and their assets is also transforming the meaning of ‘humanitarianism’. The struggle over who is given permission and access to ‘life saving’ activities has prompted some NGOs to increasingly politicize and denounce the ways in which ‘humanitarian space’ is restricted.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Speech)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Social Anthropology

UniBE Contributor:

Santer, Kiri Olivia


300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology




Anja Julienne Wohlgemuth

Date Deposited:

16 Apr 2020 08:41

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:37


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